Considering Boot Camp for Your Troubled Teen?

There May Be Safer, More Effective Options

Being a parent isn’t easy, especially during the teenage years. While some amount of attitude and rebellion is normal, a teen with at-risk behaviors who is spiraling out of control may need more help than you can provide. When supporting your teen surpasses your capabilities, you may be desperate to find solutions to help turn your adolescent’s life around before it’s too late. Boot camps and military school may be the first approach that comes to mind. These programs promise to straighten out difficult kids quickly by using military tactics. But they’re not the healthiest option for helping your teen in the long term.

Instead of looking at traditional programs promising to punish teens and stamp out bad behavior, consider alternatives that will support your teen through difficulties to turn around problematic habits naturally.

 The Trouble With Boot Camp

The concept behind boot camp is to mimic strict military programs where attendees will experience harsh discipline, extreme structure, and physical exercise or challenges to wear them down. These programs attempt to force teenagers to respect authority figures by taking a punitive approach with harsh consequences for not following directions.

Boot camps are often run by people without any counseling or psychology background. They use intimidation tactics to punish bad behavior rather than understanding how to support struggling teens effectively. When the focus is on training youth to fear and follow authority figures, this approach can be traumatic for teens whose behaviors stem from mental or emotional distress. Boot camps are also often not regulated. In some cases, boot camp tactics have led to severe abuse and even the death of teens attending them.

Even if the boot camp is resultful in the context of the boot camps’ environment, the changed behavior doesn’t necessarily translate when teens return to real life. According to teenbootcamp.org, a website dedicated to educating parents about the risks of boot camps, the recidivism rate for some juvenile boot camps is 80%. Once adolescents go home, it isn’t easy to replicate the extremely structured environment. Also, since the underlying issues causing the teen’s bad behavior aren’t addressed, young people who attend boot camps often fall back into the same patterns. Additionally, instead of automatically translating learned deference to a particular authority into respect for their parents, teens may feel resentful or further alienated from their parents.

What are the alternatives?

Fortunately, many evidence-based programs are available. In these, teens are surrounded by counselors and others who are trained to help young people heal and learn new, healthier patterns of behavior in a supportive environment.

Wilderness Treatment Programs

Wilderness treatment programs are especially effective at helping teens turn their choices around. Wildnerness programs are short-term programs that use the mental health concepts of treatment centers in an outdoor environment. Wilderness programs offer many of the benefits of summer camp, but in a structured way similar to treatment centers to support and nurture teens who are struggling.

Although your teen may still feel like being sent away is a punishment, the wilderness program environment itself is not punitive. Teens are out in nature, getting healthy physical exercise, and engaging in cooperative activities to learn to work with others and gain confidence in themselves. Just being exposed to the outdoors is proven to have a calming effect on anxiety and depression, which are common mental health issues that at-risk teens experience.

Short Term Treatment Centers

Short-term treatment centers are an option that removes your teen from a negative environment for more intensive care. This provides adolescents an opportunity to get out of harmful patterns or away from unhealthy social groups that may be contributing to your teen’s unhealthy lifestyle.

Treatment centers, as opposed to boot camps, use a counseling approach where trained and certified counselors and support specialists work with teens one-on-one and in groups. Treatment centers seek to understand and address the cause of problematic behaviors to enact lasting change. Teens may participate in cognitive behavioral therapy where they can talk about the issues they face and learn to recognize and change the resulting, harmful behaviors. Staff focuses on the well-being of the whole person and teaches teens how to take what they are learning and apply it in their daily lives at home.

These centers often group teenagers who are facing the same problems or experiencing similar mental or emotional issues. This offers participants opportunities to share their feelings and experiences in a safe environment and with people who can relate. This can help teens to feel less isolated while providing them a community of peers with whom they can share successes.

Teens sent to a treatment center are more likely to understand that their parents care for them and want to help them because the teens are in a nurturing environment. When the goal is to help young people instead of making them follow orders, they’re more likely to be open to change and seeing its benefits.

While boot camps may sometimes be effective at stopping bad choices, it often works only temporarily. It can also come at a high cost to adolescents’ emotional and physical well-being. On the other hand, alternative options, such as wilderness treatment programs and short-term treatment centers, are available. These programs, particularly short-term treatment centers, aid your teen’s personal growth and desire to become a healthy, mentally strong individual who contributes positively to society.


Kimberly Blaker is a freelance writer. She also owns an online bookshop, Sage Rare & Collectible Books, specializing in out-of-print, scarce, signed, and first editions; fine bindings; ephemera and more at sagerarebooks.com

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